Suddenly, I must reconsider my reaction to people when they ask me, as three people in a row just did, “are you still writing?” Always, I have made to quickly reassure them. ”Of course!” I say, looking each squarely in the face; and often even adding, “that’s what I do, you know. Write, write.” Sometimes I will add an admonishing look that says: ”What did you think, that I had given up?”
But suddenly–after reading Vila-Matas’ Bartleby & Co., and then being interrogated on this score by three people in one night, I am suspicious. I must now consider that the purpose of this question I so often get, get almost every time I see certain people–whom though I see infrequently, still seem to claim me as a bosom buddy–that their purpose may be not what I have innocently assumed. That the person asking it is not so guileless, as I assumed. But invested in this question for their own sake. Nor primarily interested in my existence as a writer. It has occurred to me that what these people are really doing is making sure of something for themselves; this piece of information that they want, and that is all they want–a piece of information, is highly useful to them. If I scrutinise their faces I can see it; they are regarding me like I am a sucker. And for some reason it is important I am maintaining my status, and continued dedication, to being, exactly, a sucker. I am doing something they do not want to do themselves, at all costs. And now that I think of it, how many times do I hear this very follow up: “You know I admire your dedication; I couldn’t be so dedicated.” Yeah, look at me!–they say. What a dunce I am, glad somebody is doing the important stuff! Waitress! I’ll have a double, and get this guy what he wants. Well, previously, I have been flattered to be gawked at as the truth-teller in the crowd. Now, I am undermined . . .
Yes. I think to write some correlary observations–now that I have broken into a cold sweat and see the naked truth. Several things tend strongly to verify this new view of the situation. First, that this question is repeatedly asked of me, and by so many; and second, that it is never followed up with any inquiry whatsoever about what it is, that I have doggedly continued to write. (Would they, per chance, like to read something?) These twin aspects of the situation seem very revealing. It becomes clear that this is, for one thing, a common ailment, and that I am the common cure. The aim of any of these persons asking this question (“are you still writing?”) is simply to establish the fact: that is all they want to know, that I am still at it! And the fact that they walk away (after the briefest ceremony) upon hearing the answer I so automatically give: “yes!, why yes of course, my good man!”, shows that they are reconfirmed!, reassured. I have the distinct impression that I have given them a reprieve–a pardon, that is the look of relief I see on their faces. For it is I–I am the one–who is still writing. I am the monkey. And, I now see, this is of some value to them, clearly; that is why they asked me, not to give me an opportunity to talk about myself (or of all things, the dread content of my writing), but because it is of use to them. For some reason. Or they would not have sought me out, stopped me in my tracks, and demanded to know, am I still a writer? I am valuable to them, I realise, precisely as I continue to define myself that way, and I only need just testify that I am, indeed, not wavering. At this point I have no doubt these people inwardly believe I am deluded in this definition of myself. Also, they have no idea of what the writing consists, and still less of how it is done. Theirs is a simple and a profound satisfaction. That is what they have achieved: a belching satisfaction.
Now (armed with Bartleby & Co.), I come to a new understanding of what this satisfaction is. And it isn’t so pretty. They are hardly rooting for me to continue, so much as checking in to make sure I haven’t quit. And they just seem to know that it is something they themselves are not doing. They are actively engaging in something very negative, and I make them feel guilty. And they like feeling guilty. Guilt is a fresh breeze to them, these slackers. I represent the impossible. That is what is important to them, to have the contrast. I am the one to be kept at arm’s length. But they want to always have me there, or . . . they lose a part of their own self-image. They loll about, and stew in their own rotten self-image. They love it!
I had it reversed; I thought they were asking me if the shining example I was was still there to give them hope, hope for humanity yet, and possibly for them to strive to emulate. That is what I thought! But the truth is, they are only looking to keep me as someone they often point to, precisely so as to keep their ironic distance. The last thing they would do is emulate me, and it is important to them that someone still occupies the position which they do not want. Why? Here is why the monkey must dance. Because if I stop dancing, and vacate that position, the contrast will be gone. The question of the existence of truth will be on them. Not the content of truth, but the sheer existence of it; the existence of meaning, like a distant association, like the memory of an old college course in philosophy. If I were to say that, finally, I have resigned, I have embraced the “Literature of the No” (as have the parade of authors in Enrique Vila-Matas’ stunning and exhaustive compilation), that I gave up writing altogether–this would upset them terribly. And they wouldn’t really know why. In this light, these people are, literature-wise at least, still adolescents. My renunciation (which in fact, any writer must repeatedly suffer) would not make them curious, nor elicit sympathy. It might (and woe to this lazy population!) occur to them to say, with a self-satisfied leer, that here was another sad case, that proved practicality wins out, dreamers lose, and the idealist writer will give up. But, though that last response might occur to them, the real effect of hearing my renunciation would be: they would suddenly feel alone. They would be crushed with the weight of a new, and forbidding, responsibility, and not know why. They would feel starved, starved of these words I keep serving up, and handing through the bars of my cage.